The NFL’s Greatest Losers

As we celebrate Super Bowl Sunday, consider one team that's not in Detroit this weekend: the Indianapolis Colts, whose 13-0 start matched the second-best in NFL history. Just a month ago, people were talking about the Colts being the best team in league history, or at least one of the best. A quick exit from the playoffs squashed that line of discussion, but it doesn't mean we can't evaluate the team's place in history, as the O-Files sets out to examine the greatest non-championship teams of the Super Bowl era.

Starting from a group of 20 candidates, I got as high as 54 before narrowing the list to the 10 greatest teams not to win a Super Bowl. There was no formula, but my primary criteria were regular-season record, margin of victory, quality of postseason loss, and personnel. Using statistics for this sort of project can be dangerous, though, if you start focusing on the numbers at the expense of a team's aura of invincibility — that feel that they're in a different league than their opponents. Every one of my 10 had that aura — until it got beaten.

Narrowing the list, once I got below 20 or so, was one of the most difficult things I've ever done as a sports analyst. The final four to bow out were the 1976 Pittsburgh Steelers, 1980 Philadelphia Eagles, 1984 Miami Dolphins, and 1992 San Francisco 49ers. Many other great teams were excluded, as well, but it's tough to argue against any of the top 10.

10. 1969 Minnesota Vikings (12-2, lost Super Bowl IV)

They were two-touchdown favorites in Super Bowl IV, not just because of bias against the AFL, but because this was a dominant team. During the regular season, the Vikings allowed fewer than 10 points per game and outscored their opponents by an average of 17.6, one of the highest marks in history. The offense was good, and Minnesota led the pros in scoring, but the heart of the team was its defense, which featured Hall of Famers Alan Page, Paul Krause, and Carl Eller. The defense was the NFL's best by nearly 1,000 yards.

In the playoffs, the Vikings defeated the 11-3 Rams 23-20, then breezed by Cleveland in the NFL Championship Game, going up 27-0 before the Browns scored a late touchdown to spoil the shutout. On Super Bowl Sunday, however, turnovers and a physical Chiefs team ended Minnesota's season in disappointment. The defense held up its end of the bargain, forcing Kansas City to settle for field goals and not allowing a touchdown drive until late in the third quarter. But the offense, which thrived on an excellent offensive line and a strong ground game, was beaten at its strength, getting overpowered on the line and netting just 239 yards. The Vikings went on to become a losing dynasty, with four Super Bowl defeats in less than a decade.

9. 2001 St. Louis Rams (14-2, lost Super Bowl XXXVI)

Blasted through the regular season with the league's best offense and a solid defense coordinated by Lovie Smith. A potent offense, led by all-pros Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk, finished first in total offense and became the eighth team in history to score more than 500 points in a season. The only problem was Warner's tendency to throw interceptions, but he made up for it with the second-most passing yards in league history.

The playoffs opened with a 45-17 romp over 12-4 Green Bay, in which the Rams intercepted Brett Favre six times. After a 29-24 win against the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game, St. Louis entered the Super Bowl as prohibitive favorites, but ran into the NFL's hottest team, the New England Patriots. Warner threw for 365 yards, but had two costly interceptions, and the defense couldn't stop New England's game-winning drive with a minute and a half remaining in the fourth quarter.

It was a turning point for both teams. The Patriots' 20-17 victory was the first step in establishing them as the best team of the new millennium, while the Rams' defeat ended their brief run as football royalty and marked Warner's last full season in St. Louis.

8. 1978 Dallas Cowboys (12-4, lost Super Bowl XIII)

Almost 30 years later, Super Bowl XIII is still widely regarded as the best ever. It featured two legendary dynasties, the Steel Curtain and the "America's Team"-era Cowboys, who had nine Pro Bowlers in 1978. Captain Comeback, Roger Staubach, staged a late comeback that made the Super Bowl final 35-31.

During the regular season, Dallas led the NFL in scoring and total offense, ranking second in total defense and third in points allowed. After a first-round bye in the playoffs, the Cowboys beat Atlanta despite a late hit that knocked Staubach out of the game. The next week, with Staubach back in the lineup, the defending champs served notice with a 28-0 rout against the Rams. Ultimately clashing with one of the best teams in football history, Dallas established itself as one of the greatest contenders not to win it all.

7. 1998 Minnesota Vikings (15-1, lost NFC Championship)

The team that loses the Super Bowl isn't necessarily the second-best team, and the '98 Vikings are a great example of that. Relying on a seemingly unstoppable passing attack, Minnesota set an NFL scoring record that still stands (556), outscoring its opponents by an average of 16.3 points, the second-best mark since the AFL merger in 1970 (Washington, 1991).

The Vikings had no trouble against Arizona in the divisional playoffs, opening an early 17-0 lead and winning 41-21. Next week's championship game against Atlanta, however, deprived football fans of the matchup they really wanted to see: the 14-2 Broncos against the 15-1 Vikings. The Falcons were 14-2, but lacked Minnesota's star power and were perceived as a fluke team rather than true champion material. On January 17, though, they stayed with Minnesota long enough to force overtime.

I have strong memories about this game, even though I've never seen the whole thing. The day of the game was also the day of my cousin's wedding, and the times overlapped almost entirely. My cousin's husband is from Minnesota, and before the wedding, a number of the guests gathered around a hand-held television in the parking lot. His family was rooting for Minnesota because they were Viking fans, and I was rooting for Minnesota because I wanted a great Super Bowl matchup. When the service was over, we got the score from the limo driver before the bride and groom were even in the car.

After falling behind 20-7, the Falcons cut the deficit to a touchdown early in the fourth quarter. Just before the two-minute warning, Gary Anderson, who had made all 35 of his field goal attempts during the regular season, trotted onto the field for a 38-yarder to seal the game, and pushed it wide left. Atlanta evened the score with 49 seconds left, and Dennis Green opted to kneel on the ball, playing for overtime rather than giving his powerful offense a chance to score. A little more than three minutes into overtime, Atlanta scored a game-winning field goal, and the Vikings became the first 15-1 team not to reach the Super Bowl.

6. 1967 Oakland Raiders (13-1, lost Super Bowl II)

Few teams have dominated a professional sports league the way the 1967 Raiders did. They won their first game 51-0 and went on to score more than twice as many points as their opponents (468-233), sweeping the defending champion Chiefs and losing only to Joe Namath's Jets, who they beat later in the season. The Raiders were led by the downfield passing of AFL MVP Daryle Lamonica.

In the league championship game, Oakland annihilated the Houston Oilers, 40-7, to advance to Super Bowl II. Unfortunately, that game matched them up against Vince Lombardi's Packers, and the Raiders weren't up to the task. Green Bay scored on its first three possessions and went into halftime leading 16-7. The Packers put the game away in the second half and won by a convincing margin of 33-14.

5. 1990 Buffalo Bills (13-3, lost Super Bowl XXV)

No team has come so tantalizingly close to winning the Super Bowl, only to fall short, as the 1990 Buffalo Bills. The team was a balanced mix of running (Thurman Thomas), passing (Jim Kelly to Andre Reed), defense (Bruce Smith, Cornelius Bennett), and special teams (Steve Tasker, Scott Norwood), putting a remarkable 10 players in the Pro Bowl.

In the postseason, Buffalo held off the 12-4 Dolphins with a 10-point victory, then won the AFC Championship Game, 51-3, and entered Super Bowl XXV as favorites to give the AFC its first title in almost a decade. But the Giants contained Buffalo's no-huddle offense with a gameplan that emphasized ball control. The Giants held the ball for more than 40 minutes, and led by one when Buffalo took over on its own 10-yard-line late in the fourth quarter. Kelly brought the team close enough for Norwood to attempt a long field goal with four seconds left, but it sailed slightly wide right, and New York held on for a 20-19 victory.

4. 2005 Indianapolis Colts (14-2, lost divisional playoff)

The hardest team to rank. I thought they might be as high as third, and at one point, I planned to leave them out of the top 10 entirely. It's hard to put the recent past into perspective — Seattle might have a place somewhere on this list if it loses Super Bowl XL today — and it's hard to know what to do with a team that opened 13-0, clinching the AFC's top playoff seed, and then fell apart.

Obviously, I've decided to judge this year's Colts by what they showed in the first 13 games. At the beginning of this column, I mentioned a team's "aura of invincibility," and the Colts had that to a degree you rarely see. Indianapolis beat great teams, winning at New England, Cincinnati, and Jacksonville, and at home against Pittsburgh and Jacksonville. When they played lesser teams, the Colts ran away with things. The team outscored its opponents by an average of 12 points this season, and through Week 14 — when the games still mattered — that number was 16.3.

After a dispiriting loss to the Chargers, the team was stricken by the untimely death of James Dungy, the head coach's eldest son. No one will ever be able to say with certainty what role, if any, that played in the team's playoff loss, but an assumption that it had some effect is part of the reason the 2005 Colts are in the top half of this list. This remains the most questionable pick of the 10, and I won't argue with people who'd leave them off entirely.

3. 1997 Green Bay Packers (13-3, lost Super Bowl XXXII)

There is no reason the Packers shouldn't have won their second straight Super Bowl on January 25, 1998. Green Bay had been the NFL's best team, guided by Brett Favre on offense and Reggie White on defense. The Broncos were a good team, but they hadn't won their own division, and the AFC had lost 14 Super Bowls in a row. Green Bay was favored by two touchdowns.

The Packers were fairly well-rested after coasting through the NFC playoffs with a 21-7 win against Tampa Bay and a 23-10 defeat of San Francisco in the NFC title game. The Broncos had to make a wildcard appearance, then went on the road against Kansas City and Pittsburgh, winning by a combined seven points. During the Super Bowl, their best player, Terrell Davis, suffered from a blinding migraine and had to miss the second quarter.

Like everyone else outside of Wisconsin (and maybe Baltimore), I was pulling for Denver, but I kept expecting Green Bay to put the game away. Somehow, it never happened, and instead of getting Super Bowl rings, the Packers get the third-place spot on my list of the best teams not to win a Super Bowl.

2. 1983 Washington Redskins (14-2, lost Super Bowl XVIII)

To this day, players and coaches from Washington's 1980s dynasty insist that their best team was the one that lost Super Bowl XVIII to the Raiders. The defending champs went 14-2, both of their losses coming by a single point. Washington became the first team ever to top 500 points in a season, and still has the second-highest total in history. Joe Theismann was named NFL MVP, and John Riggins set an NFL record for touchdowns in a season. The defense led the league in rushing defense and interceptions.

In the playoffs, Washington embarrassed the Rams with a 51-7 victory, holding Eric Dickerson to 16 yards on 10 carries. To advance to the Super Bowl, Joe Gibbs' group went toe-to-toe with the decade's other dynasty, the Bill Walsh-Joe Montana 49ers, and won a 24-21 thriller. Washington had beaten the Raiders earlier in the season, but the Super Bowl was never close, with Los Angeles taking a 21-3 halftime lead and winning 38-9.

Sometimes great teams approach the Super Bowl with overconfidence, or simply have a bad game at the wrong time. Even the best teams lose games — no one has ever gone 16-0 in the regular season — and occasionally, they choose the worst possible time to lay an egg. Whether that applies to teams like Washington, Green Bay, and Indianapolis is open to debate, but there's very little question that it's relevant to the top team on this list.

1. 1968 Baltimore Colts (13-1, lost Super Bowl III)

If the Colts had won Super Bowl III, they would probably be considered one of the two or three best teams in the history of professional football. Instead, they're at the top of this list. Baltimore outscored its opponents 402-144, giving it an average margin of victory (18.4) that is the best of any team in the Super Bowl era, including those who did win a championship. The Colts scored at least 20 points in every game but one, recorded three shutouts, and didn't have a game decided by less than a touchdown until the regular season finale.

After a 24-14 win against Minnesota in the first round of the playoffs, the Colts dismantled Cleveland — the one team that had beaten them — with a 34-0 rout that suggested the final step before its coronation in Super Bowl III. Baltimore entered that game as 20-point favorites.

When the game actually got underway, though, something went wrong. The Jets put up a fight, holding the Colts scoreless in the first quarter and controlling momentum. Baltimore QB Earl Morrall, the NFL's MVP, had perhaps the worst game of his career, tossing three interceptions (including an infamous flea-flicker on which Jimmy Orr was open for a touchdown), and he was pulled late in the third quarter. In came Johnny Unitas, a legend in his own time, who had missed most of the season with an injury. Unitas came in cold, though, and he obviously wasn't 100%. The Jets won 16-7, and the game probably wasn't that close.

The Colts had their best game of the season one week before the Super Bowl, and their worst game the day they met the Jets in the Orange Bowl. When you talk about what might have been, you begin here.

Happy Super Bowl Sunday.

Comments and Conversation

January 21, 2009

Chase:

This is a great article, Brad. We both brought up a lot of the same points! One thought on the ‘97 Broncos, though. They were largely the same team that started off 13-0 in ‘98 and 12-1 in ‘96. They were a really, really good team and I think they were just as good, if not better than the Packers that year.

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